Sint Maarten is the Dutch portion of the island of Saint Martin, whose official languages are Dutch and English. In Sint Maarten, two-thirds of the populations speaks English, one-tenth speak Spanish, and another one-tenth speaks a Creole language. French, Dutch, and Papiamento languages are each spoken by approximately 5% of the population.
Why Are so Many Languages Spoken in Sint Maarten?
The sheer diversity of languages spoken on the Island of Sint Maarten is suprising considering that the country has an area of only 13 square miles and a population of 33,000. However, the wide range of language is explained by the island’s history. The island Saint Martin is divided between two countries: Sint Maarten, which is a constituent country of the Netherlands; and the Saint-Martin, which an overseas collectivity of France. The island was named by Christopher Columbus, who first saw it on November 11, 1493, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. Columbus, a devout Catholic, named the island and claimed it for Spain. Columbus never landed on the island and Spain was not interested in establishing a settlement.
Dutch and French Connection in Sint Maarten
While settlement on Saint Marten was not a priority for Spain, both France and Netherlands wanted the island. The French wanted to colonize all the islands from Trinidad to Bermuda, while the Dutch thought it made a great stopover point between their colonies in Brazil and New Amsterdam (currently New York). At the time, the island was sparsely populated by the Arawak and Carib peoples, after whom the Caribbean region is named. Therefore, in 1631 when the Dutch wanted to establish a settlement on Isla de San Martín, the Spanish name given by Columbus, there was no opposition from the inhabitants. The Dutch built Fort Amsterdam for protection and sent Jan Claeszen Van Campen as the first governor.
Spanish Influence in Sint Marteen
The Dutch West India Company began producing salt from ponds on Sint Marteen soon after settlement. France and Britain also established settlements on the island around the same time as the Dutch. The successful colonies and the salt production that threatened Spanish control of the salt trade brought the island to the attention of Spain. Additionally, the 80-year war between the Netherlands and Spain was at its peak, so Spain attacked the Island. Saint Martin was conquered from Netherlands by Spain in 1633 and exiled most of the colonists. To maintain control of the island, the Spaniards built a fort at Point Blanche, which they used to defend against subsequent Dutch attacks aimed at recapturing the island. By 1648 Spain no longer needed a base in the Caribbean and Saint Martin was not making a profit, so they left the island. When Spanish forces left Saint Martin, French colonists from St. Kitts and Dutch colonists from St. Eustatius resettled there. At the onset there was conflict for control of the entire island, but both sides were too entrenched to be ousted. In response, France and Netherlands signed the Treaty of Concordia, which divided the island in two.
Languages Spoken in Sint Maarten Today
The split of the island created a situation where none of the colonists were influential enough to force their language as the only language to be used on the island. The Dutch and French parts of the island used their mother languages as official languages, and English as the second official language for communication between the residents. As a result, 67.5% of the population speaks English. Spanish is still spoken due to the Spanish heritage, and 12.9% of the population speak the language. Dutch is the second official language in the country and is spoken by 4.2% of the population. Virgin Island creole is a local English based creole and is spoken by 8.2% of the population.
About 1.5% of the population speaks Papiamento, which is a West Iberian creole language and is common throughout the entire Dutch West Indies. Scholars believe the language was derived from Spanish, Portuguese, African languages, Judeo-Portuguese, Judeo-Spanish, Dutch, English, and indigenous languages. Another 3.5% of the population speak other various languages.